The chromatic scale
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We have now seen the major and all types of minor scale, and we know how to construct all of these from tones and semitones. Here we shall meet a scale comprised entirely of semitones.
A reminder: The major scale
We have looked at the concept of the major scale in the previous study guide, so here is a quick reminder.
The important aspect of this scale is the pattern of semitones and tones that form the intervals between the notes. This pattern is unique to the major scale, and allows us to form a major scale starting on any note, simply by following this pattern:
The various types of the minor scale, too (natural, melodic, harmonic) have distinctive tone-semitone patterns, as discussed in The minor scale.
All of these major and minor scales have seven notes (properly called seven degrees), and collectively these scales are called the diatonic scales.
A scale of semitones
Let's consider a different type of scale: one made up of entirely semitones!
The pattern would therefore look like this:
Note that there are 12 semitone gaps before we arrive back at the beginning again - try this on your instrument, starting on any note and rising by semitones. After 12 notes you will arrive back at the start again (one octave higher).
The chromatic scale
This scale made of semitone intervals has a special name: the chromatic scale. The word "chromatic" (which comes from a word meaning "colourful") can be considered the opposite of the word "diatonic".
Here is an example of a chromatic scale, starting on C:
While it appears simple - and really, it is - there are a few important things to bear in mind about the chromatic scale.
The chromatic scale can start on any note at all. Look out for fragments of a chromatic scale (which could be as short as a few notes, or even spanning several octaves) in a piece of music. The chromatic scale is often used for decorative, "colourful" effect.
For example, this extract below has a chromatic scale spanning just over an octave, for a very colourful effect leading up to a perfect cadence in B flat major:
There are no degrees in the chromatic scale. As there is no particular starting note, there is no "1st degree", and there is no "tonic" in the chromatic scale.
All of the notes are equally important, because there are no intervals between them to make some sound more important than others.
There are a few important rules for the correct notation of the chroamtic scale:
- There must be at least one note per space or line, but not more than two. Never miss out a space or line.
- Minimise the use of accidentals as far as possible. This is best achieved by favouring sharps when ascending and flats when descending.
- If there is a key signature, start by using the notes affected by the key signature, then fill in the rest using accidentals, while obeying the first two rules.
Here are some correct and incorrect ways of notating chromatic scales, using these rules:
There is an important difference between the notated chromatic scale and one you can play.
Even though you can play, for example, F flat, F natural, F sharp, and this would sound like a chromatic fragment, it would be incorrect to notate it like that. Always use the rules given above, and think of the possible enharmonic equivalents for each note!
Harmonic chromatic scales
There is one special type of chromatic scale which you might come across, although it is not a universally-agreed concept: the harmonic chromatic scale.
In this particular variation, the rules above are applied as follows:
- The key signature is obeyed
- Other notes have accidentals applied, except for the tonic and the dominant in the current key.
- The accidentals are the same ascending and descending.
In this version of the chromatic scale, therefore, there are pairs of every note except for the tonic and dominant notes of the current key, which only appear once, as shown below:
You can immediately see how this version of the chromatic scale is not universally used - compare it with the chromatic scale as used by Beethoven, also in B flat major, in the example above!
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